SAN ANTONIO—Rep. Beto O’Rourke made it about 13 minutes into the debate before he attempted to throw the aggressive punch at Sen. Ted Cruz that he’d been expected to throw.
“Sen. Cruz is not going to be honest with you,” O’Rourke said, after Cruz suggested that the El Paso congressman’s concern over climate change was really a plot to seize “the power to control the economy.”
“He’s going to make up positions and votes that I never held or have never taken,” O’Rourke said. “He’s dishonest. It’s why the president called him Lyin’ Ted, and it’s why the nickname stuck. Because it’s true.”
Cruz laughed as O’Rourke said this. He laughed at just about every attack from O’Rourke all night, probably because he was ready for them. Just as O’Rourke had planned to call Cruz “Lyin’ Ted,” Cruz had a planned his response.
“It’s clear Congressman O’Rourke’s pollsters have told him to come out on the attack,” Cruz said, in response to a question about whether Exxon Mobil was correct in its view that policymakers should address the issue of climate change. “So if he wants to insult me and call me a liar, that’s fine. But as John Adams famously said, facts are stubborn things.” Returning to the facts, Cruz expanded on his view that “of course the climate is changing” as it has been “since the dawn of time.”
Ted Cruz “won” the debate, the second and final of the much-watched campaign that was never all that close. Cruz won in the sense that O’Rourke needed to use the debate to change the trajectory of the race, and he couldn’t. O’Rourke always starts at a handicap: He is running as a liberal Democrat in Texas, which, despite oft-repeated rumors of turning blue, remains a blood-red state. All Cruz has to do is use combinations of “radical,” “liberal,” “socialist,” “illegal immigrant,” and “extremist,” over and over, and leave O’Rourke to negotiate the proper way to address direct questions about securing the borders or paying for Medicare for all. (On the former, it means talking about his work on enhancing data collection at ports of entry; on the latter, suggesting that he’ll settle for a Medicare buy-in on the insurance exchanges instead of going for the straight stuff.)
Freezing numb in the adjacent, unheated warehouse of the television studio where the debate was held, I found myself lost in the variations of Cruz’s keywords. On abortion, O’Rourke represents the “extreme pro-abortion” side of the chasm; he “even” advocates for abortions for “illegal aliens” (two-for-one, there). Worse yet: O’Rourke supports the same judges that Hillary Clinton supported. But are they even judges, or are they “left-wing judicial activists”?
Cruz is often stricken when listening to the Democratic challenger. “It’s striking,” Cruz would say during one of his retorts, that O’Rourke won’t “dispute his extreme record on abortions” that Cruz had just laid out. “It’s striking,” Cruz said later, that O’Rourke says he supports the police, when his record suggest he despises our hardworking law enforcement officers. How Cruz managed to maintain his composure despite being repeatedly struck by the words from his Democratic opponent, I don’t know.
“Congressman O’Rourke supports the Bernie Sanders plan of socialized medicine,” Cruz said, somewhere around the middle.
The only times Cruz seems to get thrown off his game are during the layups, when the moderator asks an easy question and a read of the room favors niceties instead of calculated scare-word combinations. In the previous debate, when asked to say something nice about his opponent, Cruz said that he respected O’Rourke’s unwavering devotion to Bernie Sanders–like socialism. During a section in Tuesday’s debate about the need for restoring civility to our political discussion, Cruz agreed that it’s an important priority. But when the moderator jumped in with a follow up: “Don’t interrupt me, Jason,” Cruz shot back. Jason withdrew. Cruz was allowed to deliver his speech on the importance of civility, followed by O’Rourke, and back to Cruz for a 60-second rebuttal to O’Rourke’s belief that civility is important, in which Cruz observed that it’s not “civil” to impeach President Donald Trump, which according to Cruz would be high on Sen. O’Rourke’s docket, somewhere between seizing the means of production and rationing health care.
But I shouldn’t mock: Cruz is leading O’Rourke consistently by five to 10 points in the many, many Texas polls that have come out in recent weeks, indicating that his strategy of casting O’Rourke as a far-left extremist in a center-right state is working. He stuck to it on Tuesday night, suffocating O’Rourke with so many allegations to respond to that he barely had the oxygen to tear Cruz apart.
By his closing statement, Cruz had successfully drawn his lines. If O’Rourke had his way, you wouldn’t be able to open your eyes in Texas without seeing an illegal immigrant having a partial-birth abortion. The economy would be in ruins as Democrats, led by Chairman O’Rourke, seized control to turn the nation into a bankrupt welfare factory—for illegal immigrants. Judges, with alarming word-per-minute speeds, would be typing radical left-wing regulations to ration health care and obliterate business. Border walls would come down, allowing the forces of Juárez to conquer El Paso and march to the east. Police? Forget about ’em. Banned.
“Do we choose fear,” Cruz concluded, “or do we choose hope?”
“I believe in hope.”